Playing defense in hockey is a task so exclusive that some get to claim it as their position – defenseman. Apparently, that is making some Thunder players envious.
With defensemen Theo Peckham and Dan Milan leading the way, Thunder forwards are submitting more than cursory contributions to Wichita’s goal prevention. Players such as Ian Lowe, Alex Bourret and Todd Hosmer have accessorized their jobs as scorers with helping to slow the opposition.
After a 4-2 win over Missouri on Saturday night at Intrust Bank Arena, Wichita has surrendered four goals in its last nine periods – including one overtime – after allowing nine goals over the season’s first 80 minutes.
“Nobody wants to be the odd guy out,” said Peckham, a former NHL player and the Thunder’s captain. “You get 18 guys that are all doing the same thing, and nobody wants to be the one guy that’s not doing the right things. We’ve got a great group of guys that want to learn. There’s no ceiling right now to how much we can achieve as a group.”
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Past Thunder teams under coach Kevin McClelland have been built under opposite conditions, where offense was so prevalent that even defensemen were expected to score frequently. Last season, Wichita’s second leading scorer was defenseman Andrew Martens.
There is still an element of that on this year’s Thunder, and it arrived Saturday when defenseman Mike Wilson was credited with the tiebreaking goal in the third after the puck deflected off a Missouri player’s skate.
But the roles of Thunder defensemen are more true to the position, it seems, than at any time under McClelland. Peckham and Milan have blended almost flawlessly through three games, and the Jim Jorgensen-Dalton Reum pairing isn’t far behind.
“(Missouri) had some opportunities, but guys, you can see, are working hard out there,” McClelland said. “We’re still making mistakes at certain times, but we’re getting better at it. The work ethic is there.”
With players such as Peckham, Milan, Jorgensen and Reum, there wouldn’t appear to be a greater need for defense, especially from forwards. Lowe, Bourret and Hosmer are providing it, anyway, knocking down pucks in the neutral zone, causing turnovers or delivering checks on their counterparts.
The Thunder’s multi-faceted defense first made Tulsa’s offense look ordinary in a Wednesday shutout after the Oilers scored 15 goals in their first two games.
Saturday, Wichita limited Missouri and forwards Sebastien Thinel, Garett Bembridge and David Rutherford, who have done major damage against the Thunder in recent seasons.
“That’s what you want,” McClelland said. “We want to play defense first. When you play good defense, usually you get a lot more (scoring) opportunities. I know that sounds like a stupid statement, but it’s true.”
Wichita’s stinginess also allows the Thunder to play with greater confidence in close games like Saturday’s. Wichita never trailed, but Missouri tied it 1-1 in the first and 2-2 in the third.
The Thunder’s offense appeared to be losing steam after failing to take a shot on a power play early in the third, but the defense kept it from losing momentum. The Thunder recharged after Wilson’s goal, adding a score from new forward Danick Gauthier to ice it.
“Everybody wants to buy in,” Peckham said. “We don’t have those couple guys who want to float around. It’s just a matter of time before we get a get a group of guys who want to learn and want to play a system. It’s a matter of time before we start having success.”
Scoring—1. Wichita, Lowe (Bourret, Milan), 0:50; 2. Missouri, Thinel (Courtney, Rutherford), 19:14. Penalties—Missouri, Tochkin (tripping), 1:52; Missouri, Vossen (tripping), 14:59.
Scoring—3. Wichita, Walker (Bartliff, Reum), 5:35. Penalties—Wichita, Wilson (cross checking), 1:14; Missouri, Courtney (slashing), 2:03; Wichita, Hosmer (delay of game), 8:27; Missouri, Vossen (goalie interference), 16:49; Missouri, Hayes (slashing), 20:00.
Scoring—4. Missouri, Lepkowski (Fletcher), 5:22; 5. Wichita, Wilson (Gauthier, Miller), 12:56; 6. Wichita, Gauthier (Schultz, Miller), 18:29. Penalties—Wichita, Gauthier (tripping), 2:36; Missouri, Tochkin (too many men bench minor), 9:22; Missouri, Langdon (illegal check to head), 12:56.
Power play—Missouri 0-2, Wichita 0-6. Shots—Missouri 9-8-4—21, Wichita 15-7-8—30. Saves—Missouri, Clemente 26-30; Wichita, Boron 19-21.